Strength in (Fewer) Numbers: The Inverse Relationship Between the Sizes of Negotiating Groups and Their Effectiveness

We have all seen it in movies, and many of us have experienced it in reality.  One or two negotiators sit patiently in a conference room awaiting the other side, who are late.  At long last they enter, and a large phalanx of principals and lawyers deliberately walks in, sitting in precisely their assigned seats so as to eclipse the opposite side.  Each of them slaps down large volumes of documents on the table.  The lead negotiator sits in the middle, directly across from the outnumbered party and slyly grins, thinking that a profound power imbalance has been established.

It has.  And so has an informational asymmetry.  In this author’s experience, which includes countless examples of this dynamic, the one or two opposite should greet that moment with a genuine smile from ear to ear.  This is particularly so if each of them sits in front of a blank sheet of paper because every detail of the dispute is completely committed to memory.  (Quite another power imbalance arises when one side can recite what matters without notes, but the other needs to ask someone at the end of the table to rummage through a briefcase.)

Typically, if not invariably, only the lead negotiator of the large group speaks, or perhaps one more on occasion.  The rest are relatively junior window dressing, and none of them has authority to say anything.  This is because the lead negotiator is trying to manage the messaging personally, but it is only the smaller side, ideally a single negotiator, that can truly do that.  The larger side is at a systematic disadvantage of its own making.

It is an almost hackneyed observation that 93% of human communication is nonverbal.  The exact percentage is immaterial, but clearly most is.  We are programmed to read people without hearing them, and this starts at birth when the words we hear are nothing but gibberish and miscellaneous sounds.  Anyone who has enjoyed making faces with a curious baby sitting a few tables over understands this.  Additionally, nonverbal cues are very difficult to fake.  Even professional poker players routinely wear hats and sunglasses to hide their tells – and one might be forgiven for assuming that they should have fairly good “poker faces.”

The problem for the large group is that only two people are talking to each other across the table.  Presumably they are the most senior and/or most capable in the room.  Some in the large group are there to learn.  Others are having a billing event because the client believes the other side will be intimidated by their mere presence.  Still others, and these are the most important, are truly on the inside and know exactly what the lead negotiator is thinking and why – needs, wants, fears, night terrors, “squeak points,” etc.

What is inevitably true for all of the “bit players” on the large squad, however, is that all of them are gratuitously communicating nonverbally (and without authority) throughout every session, and not one of them is a professional poker player wearing a hat and sunglasses.  They may be observing the small team, but so is the more experienced lead negotiator to whom they answer, and that person is staring across the table seeing the same things they are, and understanding it all at least as well.  In other words, they can do plenty of damage to their cause, but can add little, or no value.

By contrast, the other side has the benefit of saying what is meant, meaning what is said, and at all times staying on message, both verbally and nonverbally.  Moreover, while doing so, that negotiator has the benefit of absorbing the nonverbal feedback of relatively junior people who just left the breakout room and know what their lead is thinking and feeling.  This author has seen such people literally nod in response to suggestions that might have been thought to be outrageously aggressive.  Cues like this can make an enormous difference in outcomes.

As the world finally gets back to normal, and people meet face-to-face to reach agreements sealed with actual handshakes followed by wet signatures, negotiating parties should bear this in mind:  Sometimes less is more, and more is less.

John C. Lenzen, FCIArb

John LenzenStrength in (Fewer) Numbers: The Inverse Relationship Between the Sizes of Negotiating Groups and Their Effectiveness